Grand Ambitions by Narrowed Decisions

Every holiday — this Thanksgiving, notwithstanding– I return home with confidence and clarity of how I will do things differently. Indeed, taking time away from daily rhythms and then marinating it on an endless drive through cornfield-walled highways helps you to see your life anew, albeit often with greater confidence than warranted.

On this particular drive, I found myself reflecting on a short video of writing advice from the poet Dana Gioia. The clip includes a bunch of really helpful, if obvious, advice. Find time to write sixty to ninety-minute a day. Give yourself something meaningful to accomplish each session. A paragraph a day becomes an essay in a month and a book over a year.

Writing more regularly is on my aspirational post-holiday list. I like Gioia’s advice because it provides a clear template, a path to follow. Indeed, this video is the motivation behind my early wake-up to head downstairs to a room lit dimly by a Christmas tree and the fluorescent glow of a computer, pecking away in search of one great paragraph.

But beyond all the helpful tips in Gioia’s video, it was his opening epitaph that most stood out:

‘Your life is time. That is all it is. And if you are not in control of the time in your life, you are not in control of your life. If you are wasting time in your life, you are wasting your life. You will never get a single one of those moments back.’

Despite being a relatively productive person, I have not been in control of my time for long-term creative goals such as writing. While some of my time-wasting is about lacking the right productivity hack, more often, it is the existential challenge of choosing what to work on that keeps me from the page. It is far too easy to believe that I have five great books in me than to sit down and focus my work on one simple idea. For those of us addicted to optionality, we are made vulnerable by having to choose.

But such tension is precisely why I should return to the daily craft of limiting choice– a discipline whose impact is likely to extend far beyond the written paragraph. Faced with the overwhelming possibilities of all we can be, we must move into the particular. You and I can never be a writer (or entrepreneur, or investor, or whatever your ambition might be) “in general.” We only step into aspirational identities with particular choices. We write… this paragraph. We marry… this spouse. We lead… this group. But it is through the daily decisions, some significant and many relatively minor, that we become talented writers, supportive spouses, or gifted leaders. Counterintuitively, by narrowing the potential space to engage in the world, we are opened up to live into broader identities.

And so, I return to writing. 

What is your starting step into a world that teases you with the false allure of infinite possibilities?

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